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Arthur Szyk's Depiction of the "New Jew": Art as a Weapon in the Campaign for an American Response to the Holocaust

From: American Jewish History
Volume 89, Number 1, March 2001
pp. 123-134 | 10.1353/ajh.2001.0001

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American Jewish History 89.1 (2001) 123-134


Arthur Szyk believed that art could make a difference in the world. Throughout his career he created works that spoke to contemporary social and political issues -- and none were more significant and powerful than the illustrations he used to help alter the modern image of Jewry and raise American public consciousness about the Nazis' slaughter of European Jewry.

While still in his teens, Szyk contributed editorial cartoons to a number of newspapers and magazines in his hometown of Lodz, Poland, commenting on local, as well as national and international, social and political issues. Later, in the late 1920s, he created an extensive illuminated manuscript of the Statute of Kalisz, a thirteenth century bill of rights for the Jews of Poland. Although Szyk lived for significant periods of time outside Poland, he nevertheless placed his art at the service of the Polish government. During the 1930s he travelled throughout Poland presenting his work as a symbol of Polish-Jewish cooperation. Later he travelled to England, Switzerland, and the United States as an artistic ambassador of the Polish government, his works specifically being used to emphasize a liberal, inclusive approach of that government in contrast to rising antisemitism in Germany.

Szyk spoke of his cartoons as "weapons of war," was frequently referred to as a "one man army," and no less a figure than Eleanor Roosevelt told the country in her newspaper column, "My Day," that Szyk was fighting the Axis "as truly as any of us who cannot actually be on the fighting front."

Szyk began this artistic crusade in September 1939, when his native Poland was invaded by the forces of the Third Reich. His biting satires immediately appeared in many publications in England, where he was living at the time. Through Szyk's eyes British readers saw the Poles defending their country against Nazi aggression, and they saw the Jewish victims of the Nazi terror. In the spring of 1940 he was asked by the British Government and the Polish Government-in-Exile to travel to North America with an exhibition of his work. The politicians felt that Szyk's work would be an excellent vehicle for portraying the political struggle and would help rally popular support in Canada and the United States for the war effort.

Settling in the U.S. in late 1940, Szyk was one of the first artists to show the American public the face of the European war. From the period prior to U.S. entry into the war until its very end nearly five years later, his satires, war drawings and paintings appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers and were seen in dozens of exhibitions throughout the United States. He came to be regarded by many Americans as the country's foremost wartime political cartoonist. Szyk was truly "on duty" in the fight for freedom.

The vast majority of Szyk's wartime drawings and paintings lampooned the Axis leaders and glorified the Allied soldiers and their efforts. However, from the time of his earliest antiwar drawings, Szyk also depicted his people, the Jews. While these images usually portrayed the Jews as victims, he also created paintings and drawings that showed Jews fighting back and defending themselves from attack. Rejecting the traditional Jewish image of passivity, Szyk believed that the Jewish people must act on their own behalf rather than rely on the good intentions of others. He longed for something of a reinvention of the Jewish personality. "We Jews must introduce an element of risk into anti-Semitism," he once asserted. "You can interpret the word risk as you please."

Two of the works that promoted activism, the miniature gouache painting Tel Hai and the ink drawing Tears of Rage, were widely printed and reprinted throughout the Holocaust years and after. Their use by varied organizations and publications and in numerous and varied contexts, especially those addressed to the American Jewish community, points to the role Szyk's images played during this period.

Szyk found a ready ally in his drive to rally the Jewish people, and to change the public image of Jewry, in several related political action groups with which he affiliated...

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